Monday, January 19, 2015

The Sociology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While making dinner on Thursday evening, I turned on WPFW. They happened to be playing a speech that Dr. King gave in March 1968 at the National Cathedral, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." His mode of interpretation takes the listener on a wonderful intellectual journey. He moved from a piece of literature ("Rip van Winkle"), through history (see confirmation of what he says by Smithsonian historian Pete Daniel), ethnographic observation (of the poor in the United States and abroad), social movement strategy (the Poor People's Campaign), and finally religion. His global perspective sounded so familiar and so different: "we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution."

Yet, what drew me to sit right down in the middle of my kitchen floor to listen to him was the fact that he was speaking as a sociologist. Yes, he was trained in sociology:
Martin Luther King, Jr, B.A. in Sociology, Morehouse College, Class of 1948. However, I am pretty certain that this is his Doctorate picture. Source: Sociological Images.
His sociological approach was even more clear in his speech at Western Michigan University (below) that I heard this morning. In the speech, he criticizes psychology for its desire to create a society of well-adjusted individuals and to eradicate "maladjustment" in individuals. At the time, child psychologists in particular used the terms "maladjustment," "deviance," and "delinquency." Dr. King moves beyond the individual focus of psychology to the societal focus of sociology. Within a society with racial segregation, poverty, and religious bigotry, it is not only normal but also positively good to feel and remain maladjusted, for example, in segregated places or during discriminatory acts. Feelings of "maladjustment" and "deviance" led people to join a range of social movements -- the civil rights movement to name just one -- to change society, rather than merely adjust themselves as individuals.

He made one further statement that impressed me: "I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."

It made me think of DC: "I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities (like apartments affordable for low-income households) from the many to give luxuries (and luxury condos) to the few."

His sociological training shaped his social vision of the world. And, at the same time, the world of social movements that he worked in profoundly changed sociology. Thus, in his speeches, we can hear both what sociology was and what sociology would become.

P.S. A previous post on Dr. King. 

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